For someone who was retired, Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868) kept himself very busy during the last 13 years of his life, entertaining guests in suburban Paris. Among the fruits of those years are 13 volumes of pieces for solo piano, written for his Sunday salons or for a way to pass the time with a visiting muse.
Italian pianist Alessandro Marangoni has spent the last half-dozen years meticulously going through these confections, which were born into obscurity and left there in the wake of 18th century piano stars Frédéric Chopin and Franz Liszt.
Marangoni is convinced there is value in this music, and has been making his case the only way he knows how: with sparkling, totally committed performances that belie its technical challenges.
Rossini described himself as a fourth-rate pianist (“pianiste de la 4ème classe”) but not even a second-class player would be able to make it through 80 per cent of these pieces without serious embarrassment.
Maybe that’s why Rossini’s self-proclaimed Sins of Old Age (Péchés de vieillesse) continue to slumber in the shadows.
It takes hours and hours of work to bring to life each piece, which is about the length of an opera aria. Many are straight bel canto, with a clearly defined melody embellished by fioritura for ornamental sparkle. Each piece also needs to be paced like an opera aria, with careful ritenutos and accelerandos, measured breaths, and a keen sense of dialogue and the dramatic.
The 24 pieces in Vol. 12 of Rossini’s Péchés de vieillesse — making up Vol. 5 of Marangoni’s ongoing survey for Naxos records — offer richly textured variety, filled with clever little quotations from other composers. Rossini writes with all the craft of Schubert, the singing quality of Chopin and the bravura of Liszt — but in miniature.
And Marangoni navigates all of this with a surface abandon that speaks directly to Rossini’s misleading label of Little Nothings (“Petits riens”), while doing full justice to what the music really demands of its interpreter.
It’s kind of like sitting back in a white dinner jacket and sipping a fine martini while overseeing open-heart surgery.
If you haven’t sampled Rossini’s pianistic bonbons, this is as good a place as any to start.
I have to confess the albums don’t work for me as something to listen to in unbroken wholes. But these pieces make fabulous material for shuffling into a summer playlist.
For all the details on this album, click here.
Here is Marangoni last year playing “A Caress to My Wife,” a piece from another volume: